Worried at Bedtime? Two Simple Strategies to Free Yourself from Anxiety and Go to Sleep—Even in Hard Times

The Four Doors
How to fall asleep when you’re worried

Today is World Sleep Day. It was a bit overshadowed this year as we all understand. After all, can we really spare the time to think about sleep during a pandemic? Short answer: Yes. In fact, we must. If there were ever a time when we needed sleep to quiet our minds, restore our energy, boost our immune system, and ready ourselves for the challenges we face—it is now. But one of those challenges we face is managing our anxiety spiraling way out into stratosphere about… the challenges we face. Our worry brain does not obey the ancient rules of our circadian rhythms. Our anxious scenarios— of coronavirus, of preparing for a two week quarantine, of our loved ones getting sick, of falling stocks, climate crisis, finding childcare for tomorrow, — don’t climb obediently into their bed as night falls and let us unwind, relax (?), or calm down, and sleep. They climb out. They run around. They multiply. Essentially our worries are kind of like kids at a  sleepover—they are up making a ruckus, and they don’t care what the rules are—there will be no sleep.

We are wired to detect threat and respond to threat by mobilizing our body to fight, flee, or freeze, none of which helps us when it comes to things like allowing us to fall sleep. How do we turn off our brain, stop the constant news feed and thoughts around life and its uncertainties, turn lights out, and drift off to sleep? There’s no easy on off switch when it comes to our thinking, but fear not! Here are a few quick and easy ideas to help those worries be more cooperative so that you can sleep better tonight and every night. You’ll be more rested to take smart, reasoned actions during the day. These strategies are fitting for anyone whether you’re 5 or 95 and here they are:

Fact check your fears for accuracy: Trying not to think about your fears doesn’t work, they will keep chasing each other through your mind all night. Catch them. Face them, but don’t trust them. Test them; fact check them, and do so for accuracy. Name your fears. Write them down, then run them by your inner fact checker— remember feeling scared isn’t the same as being in danger. Feeling panicked doesn’t mean there’s anything you really need to do right now. No matter how hard things are, anxiety will always make things feel worse by amplifying our helplessness, making us borrow more trouble in the future that may never come to be. Come back to the present and make the distinction between how things feel vs. how things are. Use your “red pen” to edit your fears the way a teacher would correct your test answers back in the day. Thoughts like: “This is so terrible! This is so out of control!” become: “This feels so terrible right now.” Or, “I’m having that ‘this is out of control feeling’ right now, it’s not very helpful to me, it will pass.” Make “FAQ” cards for yourself answering your own “Frequently Asked Questions,” so you don’t have to go through all the work of the repetitive thoughts and questions you have, instead you’ve got your final edits, your more realistic thoughts to refer to and reinforce regularly.

Walk out of the worry door, and give your mind somewhere better to go: After you’ve done your fact checking, you can’t just flip a switch and say “stop worrying” because the mind won’t let go so easily. In the same spirit as how we take away our car keys from the round hands of our toddler not by grabbing them leaving them the unhappiness of being empty-handed, but instead hand them a toy and voila, the keys are dropped to the floor, here is a strategy to let your mind drop one thing and pick up another. I call this exercise “The Four Doors.” It helps you to not just shut the worry door, but importantly gives your mind somewhere else to go. It’s easy! Draw four rectangles on a piece of paper or just imagine them. On each door, put a category of things you like to think about: vacations, favorite meals, celebrities you want to spend the day, elaborate shells, the universe of moss, exquisitely decorated cupcakes (my personal favorite), cherished moments with your children, with your grandchildren! Then open the door and walk in. Spend some time looking around. Describe what you see. Enjoy the spaciousness of your imagination anchored in something pleasant, beautiful, or fun! I use this idea with kids, with adults, with myself. Change up your four doors regularly if you like. Parents can share this strategy with a fearful sleeper and tell your child that you’ll find out from them in the morning what four doors they chose.

Freeing yourself from anxiety is clearly not just for bedtime, so if you’re spinning with worry during the day and feel like you can’t focus or get anything done—this matched set of strategies will help you. Use your editing pencil to fact check your fears, and everyone else’s, let nothing get past your inner-editor. Share your four door inspirations with your friends. Together, we will get through, that’s always how it works best. If you like these ideas, I have lots more like them on my website and in my books for children and teens, and for adults. Let’s take care of each other in the creative ways we can. Here’s to everyone’s health, and as always, here’s to less worry all around.

©2020 Tamar Chansky, Ph.D.

Please share with those you love.  We all will do better with more sleep.

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